Brian Ashton: Intimidating but inspirational, it's the perfect place to start
Tackling the Issues: Can Wales find a way to play unpredictably, like their celebrated teams of yesteryear, or will we see more of the round-the-corner, lateral stuff?
Friday 04 February 2011
Most of us could do without the barmy scheduling – what use is a Friday night kick-off to anyone, apart from the broadcasters? – but it's impossible not to be captivated by the start of another Six Nations jamboree, especially when the opening match sees Wales entertaining (for want of a better word) their old enemy England at the Millennium Stadium, which to my mind is the best venue in world rugby: intimidating, hostile, exciting and inspirational. The place is uniquely atmospheric, a great sporting theatre smack bang in the middle of a great sporting city.
It produces the kind of environment that should give a real boost to Welsh ambitions, but home advantage has not been too helpful to the Red Dragons recently. They are in a trough of bad results and, while this game will unite the nation behind Warren Gatland's team, there must be many on that side of the bridge who fear another defeat and are already unnerved by their contemplation of the unthinkable.
Despite Warren's usual pre-match mutterings, I wonder whether he's convinced that his players have the belief to do the necessary when the going gets tough. This fixture, of all fixtures, brings with it myriad distractions off and on the field. Will the more excitable Welshmen be diverted? It is not the only question confronting them tonight. Can they find a way of playing the unpredictable rugby that defined their celebrated teams of yesteryear, or will we be "treated" to more of the round-the-corner, lateral stuff that leaves us so dissatisfied?
How will the reconstructed front row stack up? If Wales have problems compensating for the loss of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, I can see England keeping the ball on the field and ensuring that scrums, not line-outs, are the main focus of the set-piece argument. Finally, will James Hook have any serious influence on proceedings now he has been taken out of the midfield, where so many important decisions are made, and repositioned at full-back?
As England have also lost important forwards to injury, their mobility and athleticism have taken a knock, and it will be instructive to see how this changes the contest. I suspect that given the nature of their defeat by an exceptionally aggressive South Africa last time out, they are determined to be more physical in this game – not that I expect the Welsh pack to be as formidable as the second-string Springbok unit proved at Twickenham in November.
England must now be looking not only to win the physical contest with Wales at close quarters, but to show increased maturity at half-back. There were times against the South Africans when key decision-makers seemed to be turning to the next page in the "playbook" in search of solutions, only to find the script offered no answers. The physicality tonight may not be as extreme, but the hostility generated by the crowd will create the circumstances in which Ben Youngs and Toby Flood must show they can operate with what I call appropriate positivity.
Scotland, meanwhile, travel to Paris, where they will encounter a French side still reeling from the effects of their extraordinary implosion against the Wallabies a little over two months ago. Having appeared to have shrugged off the restrictive practices imposed on them under Bernard Laporte, what happened in the meeting with Australia left many people scratching their heads. Their teamsheet suggests they are capable of playing some sublime rugby, but it is by no means clear whether they will take on the Scots with all guns blazing, or with water pistols squirting.
The Scots will go in with a big, hungry pack equipped for a face-to-face scrap and they'll be keen to extend their recent run of impressive results. They will need to combine their traditional helter-skelter approach with a strong element of control, continue to develop their forward game both at the set piece and away from it, and then hope their midfield trio can bring some intelligent creativity to the mix.
As for the Irish, they go to Italy without a recognised international front row and have lost two of Europe's better loose forwards, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip, into the bargain. It is too early for the Azzurri to derive full value from the presence of two teams in the Magners League, but they are rarely pushovers in Rome, where Ireland have blown hot and cold.
Three contrasting contests, each affected by injury and therefore difficult to call. If you press me, I'll go for England, France and Ireland. I could, however, be wrong on all three counts.
Cardboard army proved no match for battle-ready England
I vividly remember England's first visit to the Millennium Stadium, in 2001. I was part of the coaching team under Clive Woodward and we went to the venue on the eve of the game to inspect the facilities and have a brief run-out on the pitch. On our way to the dressing rooms, we came across a series of life-size cardboard cut-outs of the Welsh players placed at intervals along the corridor. Quite why they were there I have no idea, but if they were intended as intimidation, the plan backfired spectacularly.
We used it as a motivating tool and while the noise at kick-off time was so loud that it was impossible to hear anyone standing more than 10 metres away, the towering cauldron of Welsh tribalism served to inspire what was a tough, battle-hardened England team. We ran in five tries, despite winning only 40 per cent possession. A portent for this evening, perhaps?
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